Fourthly, attempting to set up a women’s only group in a larger egalitarian space, even if theoretically viable, would presumably be incredibly uncomfortable in terms of constantly having to explain that men are not welcome, that no devarim she b’keduhusha may be said, that we are not a minyan, and that we toe a Halachic line which nobody else there does. And lastly, though the men at the Kotel and everywhere else may think that the mechitzah is there for them, in truth it is there for me as a woman. Or at least just as much for me as it is for them. I don’t want men wandering around in my prayer space any more than they want me wandering around in theirs, they serve as a distraction and interfere with my kavanah (concentration during prayer).
The first time I visited Israel, about 15 years ago, I davened Shachris at the Kotel, wore my tefillin, pulled my coat hood up over them, and didn’t really think much of it. I got a few strange looks but was basically left alone. On a Friday night a number of years ago I can recall dancing at the Kotel, in a circle with a number of other singing women, after about 15 minutes one women suggested we were getting a bit loud and disruptive, not the best feeling in the world, but a far cry from getting arrested or having a chair thrown at us. Today I would be terrified to wear tefillin at the Kotel. And I am honestly not sure if that is because of the rightward trend in Israel in general, or because WoW has politicized these actions to such an extent that at the Kotel there is now zero tolerance for them, maybe a bit of both.
Having experienced firsthand this shift what I wonder is this: if Sharansky’s plan is implemented what will happen in the future when I go to Kotel with my lulav and esrog on Sukkos? In the past nobody has cared and women have even asked to shake it. Will I now be told to go to the egalitarian section if I want to daven with them? I won’t even bother to ask about davening with my tefillin in the women’s section, that ship has clearly sailed. My genuine concern is whether this plan, which asserts the rights of the liberal denominations, will ultimately lead to a backlash that completely erodes the rights women do have in the women’s section today? And what will that mean for those of us who call the women’s section home?
I understand the decision WOW made in supporting the Sharansky proposal, however in so doing they have chosen solidarity with the liberal denominations and have betrayed the Orthodox women, who were, and are, huge supporters of the organization and for whom an egalitarian section does absolutely nothing. In the frequently asked questions section of the WOW website, WOW says,
The women are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and self-defined Jews. WOW is unaffiliated with any group, religious or political, and is the only group in the Jewish religious world that brings together Jews from across the religious spectrum for the purpose of prayer.
In accepting this compromise WOW has forged an alliance with the progressive denominations over their allegiance to the sisterhood of women, resulting in factionalism within their own support base and thus cannot assert that statement anymore. An egalitarian section will do much to grant comfortable access to many people, but if it is the sole solution to women’s rights at the Kotel, it ultimately will make things harder for Orthodox feminists who are trying to assert our rights within a Halachic framework. While this proposal may be a victory for many Jews I love, and I am joyful for them, it comes at the expense of my rights and my freedoms.
About the Author: Shayna B. Finman is a graduate of the Drisha Scholars Circle, studied in the Pardes Kollel and at Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo in Jerusalem. She served as the first female Congregational Intern at Ramat Orah on Manhattan's UWS, taught Jewish Law in Israel and worked at JOFA and DOROT, both in Manhattan. Growing up she was a student of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z"l. She currently works as a personal chef and boutique caterer in NYC focusing on Farm to Table organic kosher cuisine.
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